The contrasts were deliberately sharp and well-defined: I was an international student mingling with American citizens; I was Muslim whereas I chose to attend a Baptist church; I was white whereas much of the congregation was black; and, I was an "outsider" in nearly each and every respect. From a cultural point of view, this was stretching the differences rather tightly.
As an initial matter, I must admit that I was very nervous and a bit uncertain. As I was driving to the church, a million different things went through my mind. I was often hesitant and excited at the same time. I was hesitant because I felt quite awkward attending a religious service so different than my own. I have heard many things about Christianity and I have had many Christian friends; despite this superficial familiarity, I didn't know whether I would be welcome at the church. I wondered whether people might ask me personal questions, such as whether I had been baptized a Christian, and I wondered whether I ought to answer truthfully that I was a Muslim or whether I ought to simply lie and try to be accepted. More confusing was the fact that I didn't really understand the different nuances of the Christian religion. I knew that there were many different branches, such as Protestants, Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Baptists, but I didn't know how these different religious branches differed in terms of doctrine or behavior. More, these were black Baptists, and I wondered why blacks went to a different church than other Baptists. I wondered whether I would be the only Muslim or the only light-skinned person. Despite these fears, I imagined that the people would not be hostile. This is because I had telephoned in advance, and I was told that I would be more than welcome to attend. The church employee had given me directions and suggested that I attend the morning service rather than a workshop. In short, I approached the experience with a cautious optimism.
The actual experience was both illuminating and a bit humbling. It was illuminating because I witnessed a true community of people, brought together by a common set of beliefs, and a people whom appeared extraordinarily conservative and possessed of pride and self-esteem. Three things, I think, struck me most about the people that I observed and met. First, everyone was well-groomed and the worship service seemed as much a fashion show as a religious event. Whether it was the young children or the older adults, everyone was dressed in fine clothes. Darker colors prevailed, though there were brighter accessories. There seemed to have been an unspoken dress code, and although I had dressed politely, I felt that my clothing was slightly out of place. This was something I had not anticipated; I had been worried about being a Muslim and a foreign citizen, but I hadn't even considered how to dress beyond being polite. I felt, as I entered the church, that my clothing identified me as an outsider. Second, everyone was quite friendly and everyone seemed to know everyone. I was struck by the hugs and the handshakes. People smiled and greeted their fellow worshipers with big smiles. Their interaction was both formal and informal at the same time; more particularly, they spoke very